Sunday, January 1, 2017

If Stanley Kubrick had been a game show director....

BUD COLLYER: Welcome back to “To Tell the Truth”! As you’ll recall, our panelists – Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and Kitty Carlisle – cast their ballots before the commercial, so now it’s time to turn to our team of contestants and ask: “Will the real Roman slave please stand up?”

CUT TO CONTESTANTS: Three men, all wearing togas.

The three look at one another. Then NUMBER 2 stands up.

NUMBER 2: I am Spartacus!


Then NUMBER 1 stands.

NUMBER 1: I am Spartacus!

Then NUMBER 3 stands.

NUMBER 3: I am Spartacus!


After a pause, KITTY stands.

KITTY: I am Spartacus!

A moment later, TOM gets up.

TOM: I am Spartacus!

Then PEGGY stands.

PEGGY: I am Spartacus!

ORSON, still seated, looks around at the other panelists.

Then he shrugs and gets up.

ORSON: What the hell – I guess I am Spartacus, too!

CUT TO BUD as he holds his head in his hands.

BUD: Oh shit….

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

This looks like a post for Superman

Although I seem to be plodding relentlessly toward codgerhood, one sentence that you will never hear pass my lips (I hope) is “Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!”

There are two reasons for this. The first is that my house (where I also grew up) doesn’t have much of a lawn anyway, and I well remember how my siblings and I often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on what little grassland we had – and there wasn’t really any grass on that land precisely because we often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on every available inch of it.

Eventually, as we edged closer to adolescence, our parents finally decided to plant some grass on this not-so-vast wasteland of dirt. This was the closest they ever came to landscaping.

The second reason I don’t disrespect my juniors is that I don’t mind being around young people. I worked with a lot of them during my 30 years at a newspaper and three years at an ad agency. I appreciated their talents and, dare I say it, sometimes I even learned from them.

One thing I especially admire about them is their ability to do something that I will never be able to do:

Talk on a cell phone in the middle of a lot of noise.

I don’t know how they manage it – maybe it’s a part of evolution that Darwin didn’t envision – but you could put any one of them and their phones in the middle of a boiler works at peak production time, surround them with bands simultaneously playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “St. Louis Blues” at competing decibels, and they wouldn’t miss a single syllable uttered from any end of the earth.

I was thinking about this for the umpteenth time while I was downtown today and needed to make a couple of calls.

I needed a quiet place – as quiet as possible. So I went into one of downtown’s oldest buildings, figuring that its marble lobby would provide the most amenable acoustics – or, better yet, no acoustics at all.

I figured wrong.

Because a big radiator near one of the two main staircases had decided to sound off. Not a very loud sound, mind you, but loud enough.

So I ducked behind one of the staircases and found something that I hadn’t realized still existed.

A line of old phone booths.

I have no idea what they were doing there – there were no phones inside them – but you could still sit inside one of them, pull the door shut and quietly go about your business.

I can’t possibly describe the looks on the faces of the people who walked by as I was using my cell phone, mainly because no people happened to walk by as I was doing this. But I must have presented quite a minor spectacle – anachronism as performance art.

I suppose I’m grateful there were no witnesses – perhaps one of them would have taken a picture of me with their phone, and presto! Instant clickbait.

Maybe I would even have made the evening news shows, which are always looking for anything to put on instead of, God forbid, actual news.

And of course there then would have been enormous public pressure on me to top myself, maybe by perusing my iPad while perched in a Tin Lizzie. Or piloting a drone in the Sistine Chapel, and thereby stirring up a theological hornet’s nest. (Is a flyby a mortal sin or is it just venial?)

And my heart stops and my blood pressure surges to new heights as I come to realize how close I might have come to becoming – gasp! – a cultural icon.

Then again, these days it seems that every man Jack, every woman Jill, every dog Fido and pretty much every existing being, animal, vegetable or mineral – yes, even including you and me – is either an icon or is on its way to becoming one. Just stay on the line, and we’ll get to you shortly.

And as always, your call is important to us.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Hey, New Yorker fans: Check this out

“You make sure that the names and dates are right, but then if it is a John McPhee piece, you make sure that the USGS report that he read, he read correctly; or if it is a John le CarrĂ© piece, when he says his con man father ran for Parliament in 1950, you make sure that it wasn’t 1949 or 1951.”

-- From a lecture by Peter Canby, New Yorker fact-checking director, Feb. 28, 2002

As I was growing up and aspiring to be a writer, I read the classics, which for me included Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and E.B. White.

All of whom wrote for The New Yorker.

Eventually I read Thurber’s “The Years With Ross,” about Thurber’s days at the magazine and his dealings with its founding editor, Harold Ross.

I liked this book so much that over the years I reread parts of it. The world he described seemed like so much fun. It was only years later that I read that E.B. White and others weren’t too pleased with what Thurber had written.

In 1975, Brendan Gill published “Here at The New Yorker,” which I didn’t like as much as the Thurber book. To some extent, Gill’s book seemed like a rebuttal of “The Years With Ross,” and he took the opportunity to take a few shots at Thurber. The shots were well-aimed, but I thought Gill himself came off as a jerk.

But over the years, during visits to the library, I sometimes reread parts of Gill’s book, too, because I was still in the thrall of the New Yorker mystique.

In later years, I’ve enjoyed reading – and rereading – “About Town,” a history of the magazine, written by Ben Yagoda. It’s a great book, written by a very nice guy whom I've been lucky enough to meet.

Anyway, if you’re steeped in New Yorker lore – even if you’re in it only up to your knees – chances are that you know about the magazine’s fabled fact-checking department, to which no nit was too small.

I say “was” because something I saw in the magazine recently made me wonder whether that department has been downsized.

I’m referring to “The Film J.D. Salinger Nearly Made,” by Jill Lepore, in the Nov. 21 issue.

The article tells how the reclusive author gave a TV producer permission to make a movie out of one of Salinger’s stories, “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.”

The article identifies one of the actors cast for the film as “Ted Bessel.” He’s referred to by name four times, each time as “Bessel.”

I immediately knew this was wrong. And if you grew up in the 1960s, there’s a good chance that you know it’s wrong, too.

The guy’s name was really “Bessell.” And it’s not as if he was some really obscure actor – for a number of years he played the boyfriend of Marlo Thomas in the hit show “That Girl.” Granted, after that he didn’t do very much, and his starring role in a short-lived series, “Me and the Chimp,” didn’t help. (And no, he didn’t play the chimp.)

I realize that a New Yorker fact checker’s job must be a tough one. I wouldn’t want it, even though my longtime job as a newspaper copy editor often involved fact checking.

Thing is, names are very easy to verify, especially these days. Checking whether it’s “Bessel” or “Bessell” is nowhere near as hard as checking whether, say, the Orinoco River has any fish and if so, what kind, and how many there are of each.

And checking a performer’s name is painless and easy; I won’t say the Internet Movie Database is 100 percent reliable, but for my purposes it’s almost always close enough.

The Salinger article is still on the magazine’s website.

And it still says “Bessel.”

Mr. Bessell, unfortunately, can’t stick up for himself – he’s been dead for 20 years – but I’m surprised that apparently no one has brought this to the editors’ attention.

(By the way, if you happen to be fact-checking this article, you might discover that, strictly speaking, I have spelled “Esme” wrong – the poor girl needs an accent over that last “e,” but I don’t know how to put one there. Perhaps one day I’ll get better at this word-processing stuff and I’ll throw her a bone – or maybe a tilde, or even an umlaut or two.)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Yep, the rich sure are different

I don’t watch a lot of TV, and when I do watch, I religiously avoid so-called reality shows.

I don’t care who gets voted off the island or thrown out of the house, and I’m hard put to muster much sympathy for would-be chefs who weep in their tureens as they and their deflated soufflĂ©s are sent packing.

But my limited viewing schedule does allow for one exception: “Shark Tank.”

It’s not that I particularly enjoy watching five entrepreneurs rip apart wannabe tycoons – and one another. After a while the arguments and insults seem like just so much shtick.

But I like “Shark Tank” because, all bantering aside, it’s educational. I like watching the entrepreneurs’ business minds work and seeing how they analyze proposals, even if at least some of what they say goes a wee bit over my pointy little head. And I like to think that other viewers can learn from the show too; I fear that our current educational systems fall short when it comes to teaching how things work in the real world.

However, there is one thing “Shark Tank” cannot teach me – something I have already known for years:

Rich people love to get free stuff.

If you’ve seen “Shark Tank,” you probably know what I mean. Whenever a would-be entrepreneur’s product is food or hats or whatever – but especially food – the Sharks respond with an enthusiasm that would put Pavlov’s dog to shame.

Especially Robert. Offer him free food and he’ll jump at the chance to eat it but not invest in it. (“These are the best oatmeal cookies/cupcakes/spare ribs/porterhouse steaks in the universe! Unfortunately, I’m out!”) Call him a sharp entrepreneur, call him a shrewd investor, maybe even call him a freeloader, but don’t call him late for snack time.

Yes, rich people love to get free stuff.

But I would like to add what I modestly call Murphy’s Corollary:

Rich people love to get people to do things for them for nothing. That’s one reason why they’re rich people.

I learned this lesson from a distant cousin of mine. I’ll call him Edward.

Many years ago, Edward wrote a letter to my Aunt Helen, who, like me, had never met him. Edward told Aunt Helen that he was researching his family genealogy and mentioned that the two of them were related. Aunt Helen, who at that time was the closest thing my family had to a senior matriarch – if a Roman Catholic nun can be called a matriarch – knew enough about the family to know that Edward wasn’t a fraud.

So she wrote back.

Eventually Edward, a lawyer, invited her to his family’s home in the Washington, D.C., area. Apparently, judging from what I heard about his home and its surroundings, the law business had been very very good to Edward. He also knew some well-known people, including Ethel Kennedy and Andy “Moon River” Williams.

Although I can’t say with certainty that Edward lived high on the hog, I’m sure he had at least one foot in the stirrups.

Edward also became acquainted with my younger aunt, Aunt Dorothy, who was also a nun and who also visited his home and kept in touch with him.

My one encounter with Edward occurred some years ago during the week of Thanksgiving. I had traveled out of town to spend the holiday with relatives, including Aunt Dorothy. Unfortunately, my aunt had taken ill and was in the hospital, but her condition was improving.

When Edward called my relatives to see how Aunt Dorothy was doing, someone told him I was visiting, and he asked to talk to me.

I spent the better part of the next hour (OK, maybe it was only a half-hour, but it sure felt like an hour) answering what I would call a slew of questions about my family – that is, I would call it a slew if calling it a “slew” weren’t such a ridiculous understatement.

What were my brothers’ and sisters’ names? How old were they? Were they married? How old was I? Was I married? And so on. And so on.

The next day I visited Aunt Dorothy in the hospital and told her about my talk with Edward – or, rather, his talk with me. And I told her about the grilling I’d endured.

My aunt was surprised, to put it mildly. She told me that Edward had asked her all those questions some time ago, so why did he put me through the third (or maybe third and a half) degree?

Looking back, I suppose the obvious answer was “because he could,” but I never would have said it out loud because Aunt Dorothy and Edward were on such good terms.

So I would have forgotten about Edward and gone on with my life if it weren’t for one thing.

During the conversation, Edward had also asked me to do him a favor.

When I got back to my hometown, could I try to dig up a couple of things for him?

One of them was a news story about an accident that killed a family member at the state fairgrounds during the 1920s. And Edward also wanted me to try to find this same relative’s immigration certificate.

Edward said nothing about paying me to do this or reimbursing me for any expenses, but I said OK anyway. I was, after all, brought up to be polite.

A few weeks later, I visited my local library’s Local History department and was able to find a story about the fatal accident. That seemed easy enough.

Getting the immigration certificate was more of a chore. It turned out that such records were kept in the basement of the building that was then the county courthouse. I had to go there and find someone to help me look it up. One of the clerks gave me a book that he said contained what I needed, but he nervously warned me to be careful because the paper was old and easy to tear. I got the impression that the slightest rip would cause his supervisor to rip him several new orifices.

I found the certificate – I will say that looking at it did give me a low-grade thrill, considering that it was literally a piece of family history – and I was able to order a copy of it without committing any archival mayhem.

At one point – I can’t remember whether it was before or after I went to the records office – I was walking through the basement when a sheriff’s deputy politely asked me to step aside.

I did so, and then watched as a small parade of prisoners was marched from the jail – there was an underground passageway – to the courthouse. My memory isn’t always reliable, but as I recall they were shackled. I couldn’t tell what they were accused of or how dangerous they were just by looking at them because I simply avoided looking at them. Of course there was always the possibility that one of them would overpower a guard, grab the guard’s gun and hold me hostage.

Yes, I sure hoped Edward would appreciate how I took my life in his hands just so he could graft part of another branch onto the family tree.

Eventually I mailed all this stuff to Edward. As a bonus – and a subtle hint – I enclosed, without comment, a list of professional genealogists from my hometown area. That’s “professional” as in “people usually pay other people good money to have this stuff done, El Cheapo.”

I’ve been racking my brain, but to the best of my knowledge I don’t think Edward ever acknowledged what I did for him, though – my memory again being what it is – maybe he did send a card and I forgot about it. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

And I can definitely state that he never sent me any money or other tokens to recompense me for my time and expense.

Not even a “Let me know if I can do something for you sometime.”

Not even an autographed picture of Andy “Moon River” Williams.

So maybe he didn’t think my subtle hint was all that subtle.

But what did I care? Although I didn’t go so far as to check every last follicle each night before I went to bed, I figured that Cousin Edward was now out of my hair, for at least a while.

As it turned out, “at least” was putting it mildly.

A few years later, I was visiting Aunt Dorothy when, just to make conversation, I asked her if she’d heard from Cousin Edward lately.

To my surprise and shock, her face collapsed in tears.

“Cousin Edward died!”

I immediately went into Consolation Mode, mumbling the usual “Gee, too bad, sorry to hear it,” and similar sentiments.

And I must say I’m proud of myself for having enough self-control to not say the first thing that popped into my head when Aunt Dorothy told me Edward had died:

Well, that’s one way to find out about your ancestors….

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This just in from the (unsubstantiated) literary rumor mill....

Word has it that Harper Lee left yet another unpublished manuscript.

It's based on the life of John Cameron Swayze.

It's called "Go Test a Watch, Man!"

Friday, May 6, 2016

Coming soon: 'Percy Kilbride at Colonus'?

Seen in the DVD section of my local chain bookstore:

"Ma and Pa Kettle: Complete Comedy Collection."

(Not to be confused with "Ma and Pa Kettle: Complete Greek Tragedy Collection.")